Review: Betsy Morgan and Adam Jacobs Prove Good Fits for The King and I
Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre revives the classic musical with a cast of 33.
One of Chicago's major commercial musical houses, the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, has mounted a fresh production of The King and I that's good but not great. The point is not to damn with faint praise, but to emphasize how very difficult it is for anyone to offer a truly great production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. It's a complex story with big vocal and orchestral demands, and elaborate costume and scenic elements. Its large cast requires many children, and most of the cast must be of Asian heritage. To mount this show, the Drury Lane producers (five grandchildren of founder Anthony DeSantis) have gone far beyond Chicago to assemble a cast, director (Alan Paul), choreographer (Darren Lee), and design team mostly of Asian heritage, most of whom are working at Drury Lane for the first time.
They have poured their talents into a production that's musically first-rate both onstage and in the pit. The score is as lush, beautiful, and moving as ever. Musical director Tim Laciano gets a big sound from his seven players, with particularly good work from trumpeter Carey Deadman (also the arranger) and woodwinds Steve Leinhesier and Jim Gailloreto. Still, synthesizer strings never can adequately replace real strings, and one real violin and one cello would add considerable warmth, richness, and tenderness to the sound.
Broadway's original Aladdin, Adam Jacobs, plays the King of Siam and the intelligent but quirky monarch is a role that suits him well. He's completely on top of the role's musical and dramatic demands, even if he's 20 years too young. Hard to believe that the youthful-looking king has 67 children, even as he declares that he "started late," but with a bit of a beard and spectacles, Jacobs — who is only in his late 30s — adds some age to his portrayal.
Returning to Drury Lane, Betsy Morgan plays Anna Leonowens with grace, allure, and a sparkling voice. As with Jacobs, the role of Anna is a good fit for her, and she sails through it smoothly, seeming to float along in the large hooped dresses she wears. This doesn't mean she lacks seriousness when demanded. Hammerstein's book gives her the lion's share of the show's messages about slavery, racism, cultural misperceptions, and the position of women in a male-dominant world, and Morgan delivers them with appropriate gravitas.
The supporting players, who also carry much of the drama, are musically impressive as well, among them alto Christine Bunuan as Lady Thiang, mezzo Paulina Yeung as Tuptim, Broadway veteran Ethan Le Phong as Lun Tha, and Karmann Bajuyo in the non-singing role of the Kralahome. Young actors Braden Crothers and Matthew Uzarraga as Louis Leonowens and Prince Chulalongkorn, capably round out the key players.
The major weakness in this production is the scenic design by Wilson Chin and Bangkok native Riw Rakkulchon. A half-dozen majestic columns slide on-and-off in various configurations to define different palace spaces, as do some louvered wood windows that define intimate areas, but the entire show is played in front of an off-white back curtain that spans the width and height of the stage. Although occasionally bathed in primary colors (lighting design by Eric Southern), the overall effect is bland, with very few hints of the show's exotic locale. A program note from director Alan Paul says the production tried to achieve a spare and open Thai Buddhist style, but to an uninformed audience the scenic design looks unfinished, especially alongside the rich-looking, lovely costumes (designed by Izumi Inaba). A few flashes of visual elaboration — including life-size elephant shadow puppets, multi-tiered Thai royal umbrellas, and a large painted banner that drops down during the Act 2 ballet scene — are quite effective and make you wish for more.
For the ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," choreographer Darren Lee uses several key elements of Jerome Robbins's original dance — such as Eliza (Kristine Bendul) hopping on one foot — but also delivers fresh movements that incorporate a few marionettes. Not counting the famous polka between the King and Anna, this ballet is the signature dance scene in The King and I, and Lee pulls it off with aplomb. He and costumer Inaba retain the traditional, elaborate, close-fitting Thai classical dance costumes and masks, which help make this sequence, and this production, a solid success.